People gather for a vigil in response to the death of a counter-demonstrator at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, outside the White House in Washington, U.S. August 13, 2017. .
(photo credit: REUTERS / JONATHAN ERNST)
US President Donald Trump’s “neo-Nazi, neo-Shmazi” news conference, according to which “there’s blame on both sides,” rightly stunned many and has received endless coverage and comment. It has sparked much debate, criticism and condemnation. It has appropriately been disapproved of for lack of moral clarity at a time that it is so desperately needed.
Asked whether white supremacists and their counter-protesters belong “on the same moral plane,” President Trump responded: “I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane.” That is the heart of the issue, the proverbial writing on the wall that we should be discussing. It is precisely the imperative for moral clarity that exposes the many hypocrisies that are but symptoms of the underlying issues deeply ailing our societies.
If we are to truly comprehend the challenge at hand, it is insufficient to focus on the symptoms and discuss them endlessly without considering the root causes. Recent developments, including the very existence of neo-Nazis and white nationalist groups in 2017; their organization of a hateful, intolerable demonstration; the violence that ensued in Charlottesville; and the reactions that they have sparked – these are all but symptoms of a far deeper, more complicated and dangerous reality. They are testament to a society that has accepted that we live at a time of moral ambiguity without launching into the deep and meaningful soul searching that affords moral clarity.
To truly address the challenges at hand, the underlying hypocrisy of Western democratic states must be exposed and addressed. We cannot continue condoning human rights abuses of countries like China and Saudi Arabia while benefiting from booming economic relations; we cannot continue to support UN institutions that betray their mandate by enabling terrorist organizations to utilize their facilities; we cannot continue enabling the use of human rights rhetoric to launder the very abuses and atrocities that they were intended to prevent.
Ultimately, it is moral ambiguity that empowered Linda Sarsour to lead the Women’s March on Washington while openly supporting a racist, terrorist organization like Hamas; it is moral ambiguity that sanctioned disavowing and dis-inviting Ayaan Hirsi Ali despite her brave and honest critique and human rights activism; it is moral ambiguity that enables continued turning of a blind eye to the monthly payments “awarded” to Palestinian terrorists for killing Israelis.
Moral relativism is by no means a new phenomenon. It has existed since biblical times, right through to Foucault and Derrida, often serving to challenge existing power structures and institutions, religion included. Yet, with the demise of organized ideologies and the proliferation of moral relativism to every level of society, at a time the virtual and real converge, it seems to have become the primary organizing ideology, with little to counterbalance or contest it. Seventy years ago, in the aftermath of a horrific dark era, the universal declaration of human rights represented an attempt to rally the global community around shared, uncompromising values.
History suggests it would be advisable to renew our societal covenant, preferably before things spiral downward. Moral relativism as the organizing structure prevents our societies from addressing their deep challenges, from home-grown radicalization processes to corrupt leadership. Democracy gives power to the people precisely for times like these. A call for moral clarity can and should come from each and every individual and community. While it is unfortunate that the leader of the free world has not taken the lead on this, there are many who can and should begin the process.
Though daunting and while we may not complete the task, we are no longer able to desist from it. The urgency of keeping our collective eye on the ball has become that much more pronounced and the price of not doing so that much greater. Terrorist organizations are conflated with freedom fighters, feminist marches exclude certain female members, diversity has often come to mean viewpoint uniformity – the urgency for moral clarity should not be disregarded.
As a Canadian who lives in Israel, it seems that the writing has been on the wall for quite a while, yet ignorance, indifference or hypocrisy have gotten in the way of learning a valuable lesson. Moral clarity would mean that the vocal critics rightly condemning the response of the president would react in the same way when buses exploded resulting in the erection of a security fence; when a mother was brutally murdered on her front steps in front of her own children; when an American-born peace activist and educator was murdered on his way home on a public bus; when Israeli soldiers are kidnapped into an underground tunnel in the window of a humanitarian cease-fire, under the auspices on the UN and the international community, violating the Geneva Convention, without any repercussion to date; when a young girl is butchered in her bed; rather than condoning, endorsing or uttering the very same words, suggesting that “there’s blame on both sides.”
The thing with moral clarity is that it cannot be ambiguous, and the thing with moral ambiguity is that it applies only when it suits the individual, community or country concerned. The call for moral clarity must be that all individuals, communities and countries are held to the same standard and account, without exception, differentiation or discrimination, at all times. Moral clarity cannot accept any differentiation between terrorist attacks, be they in Nice, Ottawa, Tel Aviv, Boston, Jerusalem or Barcelona. That is the required lesson of our times, of which the most recent Charlottesville episode and its aftershocks are but a symptom.
The author is a PhD candidate in law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, researching the topic of free speech on university campuses. She is a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at IDC Herzliya.